As part of my on-going attempt to convince myself that my chess reading is not a complete waste of time (even for my chess-playing ability!), I offer the following thoughts on the important relationship between chess strategy, computers, and spiritual knowledge.
Of late, I have been reading a carefully annotated account of Garry Kasparovâ€™s last encounter with Deep Blue, the IBM super computer that ultimately bested Kasparov, who is widely regarded as the best chess player of all time. To understand why this was such a big deal, you have to understand something about chess strategy and chess computers.
Despite some failed attempts to create artificial-intelligence approaches to chess, virtually all chess computers play through a combination of brute memorization and calculation. Here is how it works. The opening of a chess game is extremely important. It is also fairly manageable in the sense that the universe of â€œsoundâ€? moves is relatively small. For example, opening a chess game by moving your queenâ€™s rookâ€™s pawn forward two spaces (a2-a4) is just dumb. As a result there are various opening systems (the English Opening, the Queenâ€™s Gambit, the Ruy Lopez, the Sicilian Defense, etc.) that have been studied in great detail and consist of a long lines of pre-determined moves. A good chess computer has databases filled with thousands of these variations, which it can recall with perfect accuracy.
Once a computer is out of the opening, it plays by brute calculation. It looks at the board and examines every possible move. The position resulting from each move is judged by a combination of material advantage, tempo, king safety, and space. This process is then repeated for all of the available moves in each resulting position and so on. Some lines are discarded as worthless, but most are examined. As you might imagine, the set of positions that the computer is analyzing rapidly becomes astronomically large. However, with enough micro-processors and memory chips, the computer can â€œseeâ€? several moves into the future, far more moves than can a human being engaged in the same calculation.
Traditionally, this brute-calculating aspect of chess-computers has led to a simple rule of thumb: Computers play spectacularly well in open positions, but are often befuddled by closed ones. An open position is one where many or most of the pieces (especially pawns) have been removed from the board and play is active and fluid. This is the kind of game where attacking combinations are most effective because it is easier to get at an opponentâ€™s pieces (especially her king). As a result, the ability to precisely plot many moves into the future becomes decisive. A closed position is one in which many pieces remain on the board, and the center is clogged by lines of stationary pawns that make maneuvering difficult. In a closed position, deep strategic thinking triumphs over precise tactical calculations. The essence of such strategic thinking is an ability to spot and exploit tiny structural changes in the position of the pieces that will pay off with important advantages many, many moves later. What is required is not calculation but intuition.
Traditionally, computers have been prone to aimless play in closed positions, and grandmasters such as Kasparov who have an intuitive grasp of positional play have been able to keep the game closed until the computer stumbles into a losing position. Or at least this was the tradition until Deep Blue. During its games against Kasparov (or at least some of them), Deep Blue didnâ€™t play like a computer. It didnâ€™t make meandering moves in the closed positions. Rather, it deftly and subtly maneuvered its pieces as if motivated by an intuitive understanding of the position, making moves whose advantage could be articulated only at the level of airy strategic abstraction, e.g. â€œpawn to b5 strengthens the queen side defensesâ€? etc. The wonder of this lies in the fact that Deep Blue did not have any â€œdeep strategyâ€? algorithm. Its programmers did not design it to think strategically. It simply performed a move by move calculation in exactly the same manner as does any $5.99 chess program. At some point, millions of calculations per minute transformed itself into intuition.
The divide between the tactical calculation of open position and the strategic intuition of a closed one arguably mirrors an ancient distinction in philosophy between two sorts of knowledge: episteme and techne. Episteme refers to concrete propositional knowledge. For example, something like â€œThere are three members of the godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Ghostâ€? is an example of episteme. In contrast, techne refers to knowledge that takes the form of some skill that cannot be reduced to propositions or rules. Knowledge of how to live with the Spirit or live a righteous life are examples of techne. These are activities that cannot be stated in terms of simple procedures.
Mormon thinkers eager to lionize the seeming absence of a well-developed LDS theological tradition have frequently latched on to something like this distinction. Important religious knowledge, they insist, does not consist in the abstractions of theology (or what many LDS call â€œdoctrineâ€?), but rather is best seen in spiritual skills and practices that cannot be easily reduced to â€“ or deduced from â€“ such abstractions. Thus, the largely atheoretical nature of our religious thinking is tagged as an intellectual virtue that accommodates a laudable emphasis on practice and techne over abstraction and episteme.
Deep Blue, however, seems to present a challenge to the neat dichotomy upon which this apologetic rests. It suggests that in the end intuition may be achieved through calculation, techne may emerge from the mere aggregation of episteme. Of course chess, despite its delightful complexity is really a rather simple phenomena. (As I recall a mathematician in the 1920s performed a proof that shows that there are a finite number of possible chess games, although no one knows how many there are are, let alone how they were played.) Hence, one might dismiss this â€œchallengeâ€? as irrelevant. Position judgement in chess is simple compared to spiritual skill. Still, if Deep Blue is a valid example of intuition emerging from calculation, then there may be a deeper affinity between the practical and the theoretical â€“ between episteme and techne â€“ than we have been led to assume. And there may be more room for abstract theology in our practical religion than we have often allowed ourselves to believe.